Image: Habitats and rocket chairs
SpaceDev
Habitat modules and rocket chairs dot the lunar surface in this illustration showing SpaceDev's approach for human missions to the moon.
By Senior space writer
updated 11/21/2005 1:18:44 PM ET 2005-11-21T18:18:44

A newly released study has focused on how best to return people to the moon, reporting that future lunar missions can be done for under $10 billion — far less than a NASA price tag.

The multiphased three-year study was done by a private space firm, SpaceDev of Poway, Calif., and concluded that safe, lower-cost missions can be completed by the private sector using existing technology or innovative new technology expected to be available in time to support human exploration of the moon in the near future.

SpaceDev announced the results of its International Lunar Observatories Human Servicing Mission study last week at a meeting conducted by Lunar Enterprise Corp., or LEC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Space Age Publishing Co. of Hawaii’s Island, Hawaii, and Palo Alto, Calif. The study was funded by LEC.

NASA has tallied its future lunar mission costs, projecting a figure of $104 billion over 13 years .

According to SpaceDev's chief, Jim Benson, the private group has found that a more comprehensive series of missions could be completed in a fraction of the time and for one-tenth the cost of the NASA program.

Each mission, as envisioned by SpaceDev, would position a habitat module in lunar orbit or on the moon's surface. The habitat modules would remain in place after each mission and could be reprovisioned and reused, thus building a complex of habitats at one or more lunar locations over time, according to a press statement on the study findings.

Benson also noted: "We are not surprised by the significant cost savings that our study concludes can be achieved without sacrificing safety and mission support."

Growing and last presence
In outlining their study findings, SpaceDev has blueprinted a conceptual mission architecture and design for a human servicing mission to the lunar south pole — targeted for the period between 2010 and 2015.

The length of stay on the moon would be seven or more days — depending on cost, practicality and other issues. The SpaceDev study explored a range of technologies that would be needed: hardware that exists now, hardware that is currently under development, and proposed technology that NASA or other nations could spearhead, or might be developed by the private sector in time to be incorporated into lunar operations.

The SpaceDev study underscores a key finding: A combination of technology already under development by companies could be combined to create a growing and lasting presence at the moon at costs significantly lower than those proposed by other organizations.

Armchair astronauts
Along with a look at how best to stage Earth/moon transportation, one novel approach to dispatching people onto the moon is the "rocket chair."

Image: Rocket chair
SpaceDev
An illustration shows an astronaut sitting in a "rocket chair."
The rocket chair idea as envisioned by SpaceDev would be modular and dual purpose. The hardware could land small observatories or other science gear on the lunar terrain. It could also lower individuals from lunar orbit onto the moon.

According to a SpaceDev, the rocket chairs have the added feature of carrying sufficient propellant to ascend back to the command module for the return trip to Earth. In fact, on the way to the moon — should a problem develop — rocket chairs, attached to the outbound capsule, would have enough fuel to return the capsule to Earth for a direct atmospheric re-entry.

"If we are correct about our lunar mission cost estimates, our type of human mission could have 40 people visiting the moon for the cost of NASA's first mission," Benson concluded.

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